Health buffs used to draw one list of food to stick to and another list of food to avoid. Under the first list are fresh food including vegetables, fruits, eggs and dairy products. Under the second list are processed food including canned meat, frozen processed meat (chicken nuggets and the like) and cured meat (ham, bacon, salami, pepperoni) which are not only high in fat but high in sodium as well.
On Sunday evening, when I first read the China View report that melamine was found in raw eggs, my first thought was that it is no longer enough to stay away from processed foods to be safe. With fresh produce now found to be contaminated with melamine, I wonder what health advocates will say.
While the Filipinos are focused on the inclusion of Sunflower Crackers in the list of food found to contain melamine, many miss the more serious danger. Along with Sunflower Crackers, Hong Kong’s Center for Food Safety also found melamine in fresh brown eggs in amounts even higher than that found in Sunflower Crackers.
Melamine in processed food in one thing. It is easy enough to ditch Sunflower Crackers from one’s diet but how does one avoid eggs?
Oh, but that’s China, you’re probably thinking. China is so far, far away. The contaminated eggs are produced by only one farm. True. But if you do a little more research, it’s actually scary. Melamine was discovered as an ingredient in chicken feeds in the powdered eggs controversy in Japan and the powdered eggs were imported from China.
That’s China — again — so we’re safe, you’re thinking. Well, consider this. Sanlu did not even export milk to the Philippines yet the Department of Health could not discount the possibility that they might have found their way in the local markets. Smuggling is rampant. So how do we know that melamine spiked chicken feeds have not entered the country and fed to the dressed chickens on the supermarket freezers? How do we know that contaminated powdered eggs have not been exported (or smuggled) into the Philippines and used in making plain or cream-filled crackers sold in sari-sari stores?
The glaring truth is that we do not know. What we do know is that the wise businessman will always try to minimize production cost in order to maximize profits. If chicken feeds from China are cheaper than local brands, they will be preferred. If using powdered eggs will lower the cost of production of bread and crackers, they will be embraced. If smuggling rather than importing will make them even cheaper, that can be arranged too.
It would seem like the perfect break for organic food producers. But there is a report that in Britain, sales of organic food have dropped by as much as 18 per cent. With food prices soaring, pricey organic vegetables, meat and fruits are just beyond the reach of the average wage earner.
And that’s Britain — a First World country. How worse can the situation be for the average wage earner in a Third World country like the Philippines? Have you checked the prices of organic vegetables in the supermarkets? You think the messenger in my husband’s office can afford them? Personally, I stay away from them. See, I’m not so sure if their prices simply reflect the cost of production or if organic farm producers are arbitrarily raising the prices because they are riding high on the health bandwagon that has popularized organic farming.
Unless the government has the resources and the will to test each and every product, and to close down every business entity that violates food safety standards, we’re on our own.
So what are our options? Do we have any options? If not eating is a realistic option, then we can consider ourselves safe from food poisoning. But that’s a faster way to die, obviously, so it can’t be a good option. So, what do we do? Are you willing to scrutinize the origin of every egg and chicken that you buy? Are you willing to demand that the supermarket furnishes you with a written certification that the eggs and chickens sold are safe? Can you do that in a public market where 90 per cent of the population buy their food?
In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to. The government should require every food manufacturer and seller to provide such an assurance. But the harsh reality is that even if the government does require food producers to certify the safety of their products, we know that certifications are only pieces of paper and they carry no real guarantee. Unless the government has the resources and the will to test each and every product, and to close down every business entity that violates food safety standards, we’re on our own.
Me, I’ve started planting. Seriously. I have two malunggay trees that will provide a steady supply of free and pesticide free vegetables. I’m growing a lemon tree and a kaffir lime tree. I have peppers, basil, cilantro, mint, pandan… We’ll be planting kankong and pechay soon. I don’t have a farm, much less a hacienda. I have a garden but instead of planting them purely with ornamentals, I’ve made enough space for herbs and vegetables. That might not keep my family totally safe from the hazards of modern food production but that’s less consumption of potentially toxic food.